Postures and Transitions

I’ve probably said it before in class, and I’m sure I’ll say it again in class, but it’s worth putting up here so I can say I’ve done it.  Put very bluntly, the transitions – the movements we make from one posture to the next – are as important as the postures themselves.

It’s one of the more immediate challenges for every beginner.  It’s hard enough to remember all the postures and their names (“Psst, hey! Did Phil just call for ‘Gold Stork Craps on Lotus’ or are we at ‘Monkey Twiddles His Thumbs’?”) – now we gotta learn all the stuff in between the postures?!

Before you get the impression I’m being all judgy, I can assure you I had just as hard a time learning the postures and transitions as every other student.  It’s practically one of the “Stations of the Cross” every tai chi player goes through.

When we begin learning, we move from one posture to another as though they were camera poses.  This is understandable; especially when one of the best resources we have for learning the form, Yang Chengfu’s “Essentials and Applications of Tai Chi Chuan,” specifically has photographs of every finishing posture, and only verbal descriptions of the transitions. 

And yet, the transitions are what makes the postures effective as a martial art; it’s what makes them flow smoothly and elegantly, one posture to the next, and it’s how we learn to use our bodies in a balanced, healthy and efficient manner.  “Single Whip,” for example, makes no sense whatsoever if you just “assume the position;” however, it’s the movement from wherever we were before into that finishing posture that gives the posture its meaning.

After Grandmaster Yang Chengfu passed on to his Eternal Reward in 1936, his disciple Chen Weiming added to the body of knowledge of tai chi by producing a series of photographs of himself performing the transitions as well as the finishing postures.  He understood their value and underwent the additional trouble & expense of publishing this addendum to Yang Chengfu’s important body of work.  Paul Brennan translated this work last year, and we are fortunate to benefit from it.

I wish I’d had access to this volume earlier in my progress – I’d have spent a lot less time unlearning bad habits!

When we’re beginning, it’s less essential to get every point perfect than it is to keep practicing.  We don’t become experts overnight, and we should – as I’ve often said – trust the process and work to improve every day.  The transitions will grow if we work at them, and we soon forget that we ever did our tai chi any other way.